Pull quote: Being underestimated is a gift.

Marginalized

When I was asked to write an essay for HeroPress, I humbly accepted due to my desire to help others. HeroPress needs a post and perhaps something I say could have a positive impact on another person. Little did I realize that having to write as a “marginalized” individual would cause me to want to retreat.

The word “marginalized” stirs up a lot of emotion in me and thoughts such as “am I marginalized enough”, “what if I offend someone”, and “will I be attacked” tend to come to mind. Interestingly, I worry that I’ll be attacked by more women than men. I could easily write the story of my woes because I’ve had plenty but I like solutions, perseverance and resilience better. Some of these solutions may help you realize why I could be seen as “marginalized” but perhaps we’ll find a new label such as human and worthy of kindness, trust, inclusion, and a seat at the decision table.

The Beginning

I have been in the WordPress space since 2005 and tech since 2003. My team realized early on that WordPress was actually a CMS. We ranked #2 in google for web design back when SEO was easy. I was answering phones, marketing, and doing billing at that time. I would ask about budgets when potential clients would call and I had to turn away a lot of business because they couldn’t afford us. The worst part was that I didn’t have a trusted company that I could refer them to at the time. While focusing on web design I couldn’t understand why it took so long to create a website and why we couldn’t create our own less expensive solution to offer them.

Long story short, a prototype was made, then refined and rebranded as Pagely, and the term “Managed WordPress Hosting” was created. It was about 2 years later that our next competitor arrived and another 2 years for the behemoths to create their own managed WordPress solutions. Sounds grand right? Being the first and the originator of a multi-billion dollar industry had its challenges and these are problems that our competitors didn’t have to face. Now, let’s add being a female.

I feel that I need to preface these next parts of my life story mainly because I’m a female and it’s what I’ve been trained to do even subconsciously. I’m joking, sort of.

Usually if I use a word that doesn’t resonate with certain males, I’ll get mansplained to instead of searching for clarity. Their initial jump to assume that “I don’t know” instead of “they don’t understand” astounds me. That’s not to say I am infallible, didn’t say something ridiculous, or am unwilling to learn/self-reflect. It’s unnerving when Captain Obvious brings forth the basics.

That being said, first, I understand that my labels include female, white, American, founder, wife, mother, wealthy, privileged and more depending on who I’m talking with. It took years of therapy to take my own traumas seriously because I didn’t have it as bad as others. It caused me to repress my own experiences and put others before myself even when they didn’t deserve space in my kind mind. Now, I’m more resilient and realize that I can’t be everything to everybody but I can include everyone with exception of the unhinged.

Second, this is my story. It may not be similar to your own, and I don’t have all the answers. I’m not competing with anyone’s troubles. We can both exist.

Third, I’m very grateful because I have been surrounded mostly by successful women and men willing to help Josh and I accomplish our shared goals. Josh is my husband and co-founder of Pagely.

First Impressions

When Pagely first started, hate mail ensued along with many people signing up. I went to a WordCamp and a prominent figure in the WordPress community asked me where the person was that came up with Pagely because they really liked it. They were alluding to my husband Josh. This happened even when Josh said repeatedly that I had come up with the idea. It was at that moment that I realized that most people would not associate me with the idea or company I co-founded.

I had to make the conscious choice to decide if I wanted to be right or be successful. I chose to focus on success and also I didn’t get here alone. Many wonderful men and women helped. I had to laser focus on my goal which was to provide the best hosting experience regardless of minor annoyances along the way.

Many times I was not invited to join various non-Pagely meetings. Josh tried to include me even when men told him to uninvite me. Luckily, when I wasn’t allowed in the room, Josh shared the agenda with me and many times was my voice to get things done. Now, if I’m not included, I find a table that will have me, find allies, or I create my own group. I shouldn’t have made getting in that room a big priority. My solution was to remove obstacles, find the win/win to achieve my goal, and not take or make it personal.

This type of scenario happened often and what’s interesting is that the people that were saying these “sexist” remarks were good people. The problem was so prevalent and complex that I had a hard time communicating what I was experiencing.

Reaching Out

I asked other women how they handled sexism. I asked a brilliant and well respected female entrepreneur in Phoenix how she handled what I was experiencing. She told me that she saw it all the time and just treated men like her children and gave accolades. She was included because she could stroke their egos. Another friend said that she would wear short skirts so she wouldn’t have to explain and defend why her ideas deserved merit. Another friend would wear business attire daily while her male cohorts wore hoodies. Her brain didn’t change but their outlook did. There were also some that claimed that they didn’t experience it but when the #metoo movement arrived, they were the most vocal. Of course, this is an extremely small subset of people I asked but this was the reality of the time.

What’s striking is that my experience in other fields was worse. At least in tech we’re open to talk about and acknowledge the issue. It’s a start, it’s getting better, and tech attracts early adopters. When I was in healthcare, I graduated college with summa cum laude honors. I had the highest board scores in the state for my field, yet one employer told me I was only hired because I was pretty, another place said that they prefer to hire Mexicans because they work harder, and another place claimed that they like to hire females that didn’t plan on having children.

So many check marks to obtain which can cause females to compete with each other because of a feeling of lack of abundance and no defined rules.

These learnings from the places I worked happened over a period of time and some of my friends experienced sexism and abuse weekly. They were used to being treated poorly and considered less than. They accepted the situation and were grateful for the opportunity to work. Some were afraid to have or share their brilliant ideas because their paycheck was more important than their voice. Also, some were content and had other areas of their life that fulfilled them or they were ultra-resistant. The vast differences we have with one another are amazing, beautiful, and inspiring.

Representation or Tokenization?

I still have mixed feelings about being the token female. I was asked to speak on a SXSW panel a couple of times because I was the only tech female the person knew. I’m trying to get comfortable using my gender to get through the guarded gates but I can’t tell if I’m fostering inspiration, adding to the separation, or devaluing my accomplishments. Therefore I tend to stay private and stay focused on creating my ideal work environment that waterfalls over into giving the best hosting experience for our clients. Also, when I ask other women to speak at Pressnomics or work with me at Pagely, I don’t want it to be because I’m trying to hit a quota.

I choose to work with women because they are qualified. Our engineering team is 50% female and our largest teams are run by women because they were the most qualified candidates. Period. (pun intended). What makes this even more gratifying for me is that the entire team participates in the hiring process and it feels like we have an environment for equality that is natural due to the character of the people we hire.

However, we have hired men and learned that they are triggered by assertive females. My solutions in these instances include making sure they realize the issue, what’s at stake if they don’t change, and I leave my door open to conversation. They are still good people. They chose to have a female employer. My general causation theory is the stigma around therapy especially for men, lack of resources to provide a public mental health safety net, repressed feeling of childhood powerlessness from a female, and myriad other possibilities.

The flip side to this is aggressive females which also afflicts me at certain times. My progression to aggression looks something like the following. I start with casual understanding, then I ask questions for full understanding. Then I assert, re-evaluate, assert or accept. If I don’t accept, I assert again. If my assertions don’t work, aggression can happen followed by reflection. This may lead to a desire to remove the obstacle and find another solution or evaluate the origin of my aggression. This doesn’t happen often. I’ve learned that I’m triggered by feeling unseen or unreciprocated respect when I have a strong desire for an outcome that seems heavily challenged.  I accept these feelings and understand that I’m not always right. The awareness allows me to seek clarity, speak up with vulnerability, heal, and choose a healthier approach that humanizes the relationship.

My ideal solution is to remind myself that everyone has a story, listen to their story, find clarity, and let them know they are safe and don’t need to carry the trauma anymore. Open communication with mutual respect is key. You get what you give. Also, burning bridges serves no one and neither does passively laying on train tracks.

Observation

Another one of my theories is that women are considered safe. During our Pressnomics conference, Josh will receive more praise and while I do get praise, I tend to get more (or all) of the criticism. This is not about getting praise; although appreciated, it’s not the point. It’s about why people feel more comfortable expressing negative emotions to females. I believe the reason why is because women seem safer and they are more likely to ask about experiences.

Unfortunately, this can open a floodgate from people with varying levels of passion which can cause female entrepreneurs to retreat from taking more active roles. I crave feedback for Pagely because it’s something we want to give to the world. However, Pressnomics is an invitation into my proverbial house and if they don’t like it, there’s a lot of other conferences they can attend or make their own. I’ll gladly attend their conference, especially if it’s run by another “marginalized” human and aligns with my goal. I will listen to people who “get” what Pressnomics is (it’s more of a feeling) but nitpicking my font and color choice for the website is where I draw the line.

I had to get to this place because people were not going to decide my worth or determine if my creations were good enough. When I create, I come from love and a deep desire to help with the golden rule in mind. I’ve been to other conferences, where Josh leaves my side and men have said “I’m creating a Pagely killer”, “We’re going to destroy you”, and competitors that are actively trying to debate with me while my only intention was to be kind.

My goal with Pressnomics is to inspire great minds to work together, share information, and energize the WordPress ecosystem in a safe and caring atmosphere for all who attend.

My ideal solution when dealing with negative people is to not take it personally. Their truth does not need to be my truth and words from jerks no longer have an affect on me. Sadly, most jerks delve out disdain regardless of the recipient which means they might be miserable and lack empathy.

Wrapping It All Up

What does WordPress mean to me? It’s a business foundation that allows ALL people the initial building blocks for success. The barrier to entry is low and inclusion is high. Also, the majority of people in the community look past stereotypes and generalizations and want to share and lift all tides. I am very grateful to the community, our supporters, the dreamers, and to the outstanding core contributors.

What do all of us “marginalized” people have in common? We showed up and worked around obstacles. If there’s not room for you at a table, figure out something else. Perhaps, kindly discuss the observation, or create your own table. Life’s too short to be unhappy in someone else’s world. Create your own and invite others. WordPress is a great place to do that.

Last, being underestimated is a gift. They’ll never see you coming until they can’t help but notice. If you’re with the right people while that’s happening, there’s no better feeling.

5 comments

  1. Hi, it is the first time l read this blog, and it is the first time l read this quote Being underestimated is a gift.

    l also like the fact that your don’t care about writing for keywords.

    Thank you Sally!

  2. sandhya says:

    This story so much resonates with my story. I am also a female and a CEO for a successful multi-million $ venture and my husband taking care of the tech part [WordPress sphere as well]. Whereas I plan out the vision and the direction of the company, and the idea which practically made our company what it is today. But i think times are changing now and with more awareness things might change for women spearheading startups.

  3. Winstina says:

    Sally, it really matters to know that your early presence through Pagely is what makes it possible for many of us to contribute today. When we show up and work around our obstacles, when we bring our compassion, intelligence, strength and determination to goals we set and visions we pursue, marginalization really isn’t an option, is it? I understand. At times I am tired and I want to bow out of it all but then the breath that enters me centers me and I know giving up on anything just isn’t a choice. What’s more, you’re right: We are in a community where the majority actively challenges stereotypes and generalizations. This is just as important to WordPress as the GPLv2. I’m happy you’ve used the gift of underestimation rather than be used by it. I’m with you sister!

  4. ” She told me that she saw it all the time and just treated men like her children and gave accolades.” My journey exactly.

    I love you Sally. I was there at the beginning and saw all your work on all the businesses you and Josh co-founded and the ones you founded yourself.After all, you’ve been BizGirl since I met you.
    For sure women are marginalized in tech. But we have to keep trying. And being underestimated IS indeed a gift. Being old is another gift:-)

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